There is nothing quite like helping another human being succeed. Being witness to a hopeful young person walking through a previously closed door, and grasping the opportunities found beyond that threshold, is life-changing. How lucky I’ve been to earn my living by helping make that happen. Yet this morning, I’m not finding the courage to do it.
It is common knowledge that rich students have many advantages in the college process, and that merit or capability is sometimes passed over in favor of applicants with other qualifiers such as being a legacy, belonging to a powerful, connected family or, having parents with the means to promise some sort of financial commitment to the school in exchange for a positive result.
As entitled as all that sounds, the latest scandal has somehow managed to “level up” the lengths to which the elite will go to ensure they remain that way. Faking a disability, buying test scores, doctoring records and lying about co-curricular achievements are all easily accomplished….with the right amount of cash.
Which returns me to my dilemma. What am I to say today to my mentees; students of color, recent citizens, from modest financial means, the first in their families to strive for college? How can I motivate them to compete in a high stakes game for which they possess only half the equipment needed to play, in a contest where not every player must follow the rules? I have decided to tell them to run forward and do it anyway.
To the amazing young people who have entrusted me with their future:
Your road to a college degree will be infinitely harder than that of your richer peers. Finding the money to pay for tuition, books, and fees, and still put a roof over your head, will be a constant worry. But there are ways, and means, to get there. Dig in, use all the resources available to you and put together the funds you need.
Even though your family couldn’t afford competitive club sports and you haven’t had the opportunity to travel the world (or even to another state) you can still be a compelling and well-rounded applicant. Build yourself up. Volunteer, join groups that interest you, read (a lot) and surround yourself with people who are interesting and think in ways that are new to you. It is true that who you know is important, but even though you haven’t inherited an A-list network, you can go out and build one of your own.
Plan to succeed. Be the best student you are capable of. Take challenging courses, hone your writing and problem-solving skills and squeeze every advantage you can from the free public education you are being provided. Being a great student, a great thinker, and a life-long learner – is evergreen. No matter the college or career you choose.
Despite the struggles that you have experienced (and the uphill climb you still have), the fact that you are thriving shows tremendous resilience. The inequities of poverty and race are crushingly real, and I don’t mean to suggest that you just put a positive spin on it. But through these experiences, you have developed perseverance and positive habits of mind that you can turn into a tremendous advantage – at college and in the workplace.
Will you go to Harvard? Maybe, but most likely not. Still, know this: the elite colleges are not the only way to success. Warren Buffett (University of Nebraska) Vice President Joe Biden (University of Delaware) and Oprah (Tennessee State University) all attended state public universities. It’s all about how hard you work and leverage what is offered to you.
Take your shot and get rich. Probably not Forbes List rich, but rich in a career you love and are great at; rich enough to live bigger than payday to payday. Travel, pursue a hobby you’ve always wanted to dive into, raise a family, and join in as a valuable part of your community.
As this latest scandal unfolds, it might feel like one more slap in the face; one more reminder of what you don’t have. But remember, the biggest losses will be felt not by you, but by the schools that won’t get to take the next steps with you. Stanford, Georgetown, and Yale are all poorer for missing their shot at nurturing your passion, persistence, resourcefulness, and the sheer guts it took to get where you are.
Your journey to and through college will be infinitely harder than that of your peers. I’m sorry that this is the reality you face. Work hard anyway. Because on an August day in the not-to-distant future, you will stride confidently onto campus knowing that no one purchased it for you. You earned it.
Because you did it anyway.